Saturday, August 3, 2019

Martin’s “The Underpants” Comes With No Strings Attached.

Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1911 Die Hose or translated “The Underpants” is the latest show that the comedian/banjo player playwright in residence penned that is now donning the stages at The Old Globe Theatre. The others include, in no particular order,  “Bright Star”, “Meteor Shower” and “ Picasso at the Lapin Agile”.
Regina De Vera and Luis Vega
It’s not the first time “The Underpants” made it to San Diego. North Coast Rep. mounted it in a San Diego premiere in 2012. It was originally commissioned, work shopped and made its world premiere, directed by Barry Edelstein at Classic Stage Company in New York in 2002. Whatever magic it still has remains a mystery to me. The title is a bit misleading, but no matter.  Some might find it tantalizing, titillating, tingling, exciting or even racy. It might be all of the above, some of the above or none of the above. You be the judge.

Based on Sternheim’s social commentary, “Die Hose”, the story  centers on Louise and Theo Maske, a mid-level civil servant and his younger and bored wife (Regina De Vera and Eddie Kaye Thomas), who live in Dusseldorf.
Regina De Vega, Michael Bradley Cohen and Luis Vega
It seems that while standing in a crowd watching the annual King’s Parade, Louise’s underpants dropped to her ankles causing a stir in the community while at the same time bringing her some unintended fame. It all happened so fast that she was sure no one noticed.

But word did get back to her husband. That in turn drove him to all sorts of wild accusations to almost house arrest (he confines her to the house). The fallout and fame from this mishap lures several men to her door clamoring to rent the vacant room being advertised.

Oblivious to the just male applications, her puritanical husband thinks this incident will turn into a catastrophe for him and cause him to lose his job. It is 1910 Germany and he's on a rampage worrying  about himself. (Someone shoot me please after listening to him going on about his job, his this, his that… “Oh my god, what’s going to happen to me?”)

In 1910 the play was so controversial that the German government banned it. That in turn encouraged Sternheim, who by now had left the country to satirize the government, the middle class morality and social mores. And what better way is there than to satirize and make a mockery out of hypocrisy than to write a play about it for the world to judge?

According to program notes, “Steve Martin’s adaptation moves him away from the political concerns of the period and shifts the thematic focus …elsewhere. To Martin the play is a study of fame and its consequences.” P L E A S E!

Credit to Martin and director Walter Bobbie who evidentially thought the themes would still be funny today by keeping the pace going non stop in spite of the odd choices they made including “let’s have a hay day with the six or so robotic cats on the set and toss them into a dark abyss to get rid of them” , but its doubtful. 

That replay of a live child thrown into the water at the end of Act I in “Bright Star” should have been lesson enough for Martin; apparently not. By the sound of the audience response and conversations exiting on opening night at the Old Globe’s theatre in the round, the conversations I heard were mixed to confusion.

That said some of the characters do have some one-line zingers and risqué innuendos, the last a much-needed ingredient to pump up audiences. None of this is in question. The question is can we do better that this?  I think yes, but not with this piece.
Regina De Vera and Jeff Blumenkrantz
Steve Martin, whom I love in film but “The Underpants” just never managed to make it past ‘go’ as far as yours truly is concerned. And the overtly sexual in nature double entendre that caused so much delight to some had me silently groaning.   

There is only so much one can do with a one-note play. Let’s face it, a husband berating his wife, a string of male borders eager to rent a room in a house where the woman publicly loses her bloomers might sound alluring, as it did to a number of men wanting to rent the advertised room in her house, but after that, what?

Add the same expectations from those same men who happened to actually see this dropping of the ‘underpants’ hoping to get into the wife’s, now firmly in place knickers and another layer of intrigue slips into the equation.

Coupled with a noisy, nosey upstairs neighbor, Gertrude, (Joanna Glushak) with just enough annoyance to drive one crazy, she encourages Louise to have an affair with one of the renters. Beyond that she is busily making another pair of bloomers for her neighbor. (“When these fall down, it will be in the dark of night.”) It is especially amusing when she presents Louise with the new pair of bloomers boasting the colors of the German flag that in the end, the King (Kris Zarif) now making his presence seen in Louise and Theo’s apartment, gets to salute. (Yes, the underpants)
Regina De Vera, Michael Bradley Cohen, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Luis Vega
As for the male boarders hoping to rent, Michael Bradley Cohen as Benjamin Cohen, is the most aggressive and seems to get the most ‘air’- time.  He’s a barber, a hypochondriac. On the sly he confesses to Theo that his name is spelled with a (‘K’)…get it? The mention of kosher (with a ‘C, wink, wink) foods brings the same laughs. These anti Semitic undertones do nothing to help this nonsense along.

Cohen (with the K) has the hot’s for Louise and falls and trips all over himself, literally, trying to get a ‘leg up’ advantage. She strings him along as she does the poet (“unpublished-I’m proud to say-but now one who has found his muse”), Frank Versati, (Luis Vega). He is deliberate and elegant looking (credit Alejo Vietti for the stylish, period and class perfect costumes) who would like to get into Louise’s underpants and romanticizes about it as only a poet would.
Regina De Vera, Luis Vega and Joanna Glushak
Jeff Blumenkrantz is Klinghoff the third applicant and a weird scientist. He too wants to take the spare room, but doesn’t want any contact with Louise. “She must wear decent clothing, not rippled or revealing” Some nut cake, that. When he gets excited, he confesses, “I’ve been known to utter a foul string of obscenities”.

Klinglehoff  pops in, in the first act and we don’t get to see him as often as the others but I couldn’t help thinking that he reminded me of Artie Johnson in “Laugh In” as the rejected, dirty old man who tries to make it with Ruth Buzzi’s spinster character, Gladys Ormphby. Now the image of that did tickle my funny bone! Another pro, Blumenkrantz works his stuff, but it’s an oddball role.

The most appealing of all the characters is Regina De Vera’s Louise. First let me say that she is charming, vibrant and vivacious. She is perfectly suited as the ‘above the fray’ oft times solemn, naive and innocent but frustrated wife of a dictatorial jerk. Lucky for Louise that she did, in fact drop her underpants. It gave her a sense of purpose and a new sexual awakening far removed from what her husband, who looked at her as an object to cook and clean for him, could offer. Fair enough!

The end result of Martin’s piece is kind of a muddle of sexual innuendos, farce, satire and social commentary as Theo lectures Cohen on eating healthy, and advising the poet Versati on how to act like a man while the ugly truth is that Theo is a bore. (“Thank god your sluttishness had no consequences”). Theo, who in the script is supposed to be a burley, muscular fireplug with a buzz cut, is anything but. But Eddie Kaye Thomas manages to be an annoying Theo windbag who can’t seem to get out of his own way, no how! 
John Lee Beatty’s set is bright and eye appealing after the four doors to the Maske’s flat disappear but the bird in the gilded cage is a either a distraction or a metaphor for Louise’s situation. With colorful circles covering the stage it looks like a circus of a time ready to happen. But then the cats… Philip S. Rosenberg’s designed the lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s sound might be toned down a bit.

And just as a sidebar, my maiden name is Cohen (with a ‘C’).

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Sept. 1st
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Farce
Where: Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre
Photo: Jim Cox

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